Could This Guy Spark an Independent Revolution in Philly?

Andrew Stober wants to prove that you don't have to be a Democrat or Republican to get elected in this town.

Andrew Stober | Photo via Stober's Facebook

Andrew Stober | Photo via Stober’s Facebook

Could Andrew Stober make political independents a real force in Philadelphia, as opposed to the non-factor they are now?

Stober is a 36-year policy geek who most recently worked as chief-of-staff in Mayor Michael Nutter’s Office of Transportation and Utilities.

On Wednesday, he announced that he is running for City Council At-Large this year as an Independent, and he hopes that many others will follow in his footsteps.

His decision to throw his hat in the ring as an Independent, as opposed to running in the primary as a Democrat, is intriguing. By law, two of Philadelphia’s seven City Council At-Large seats don’t go to the top vote-getters overall; instead, they are reserved for those who tally up the most votes out of the smaller pool of candidates who aren’t Democrats. Republicans usually snag those two seats, but they’re also open to Independents and members of the Green Party, Working Families Party, Tea Party and so on.

Though Stober starts out with very little name recognition, there is a chance that Nutter will stick out his neck for him, which would help him build up support. And as an Independent, Stober only needs to compete with Republicans to win, and they draw in far fewer votes than Democrats.

We sat down with Stober in Center City to talk about his platform, his chances of winning, and his dream of sparking an Independent revolution in Philly. Our questions have been paraphrased and his responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Citified: Why are you running for City Council, and why are you doing so as an Independent?

Stober: I’m doing it for two reasons. One is, I really think City Council needs some new voices on it. I think the voters agree with that as well. I think voters really want to hear and see in Council people with impressive and established track records outside of elected office. And so I think that’s what we saw with Helen Gym and Allan Domb being on Council. We have a lot of career politicians on Council. … I think that I really bring a a whole set of professional experiences in making local government work well, that would really be of great benefit to the citizens and to City Council overall as a body, in helping it be more effective in both partnering with the next mayor, but also making sure that the next mayor is being held accountable and helping Council achieve its goals and the citizens achieve everything that they want for the city.

As for why I’ve taken this approach, I mean I was very deliberate in choosing to run as an Independent, and it’s not just about a theory that it might be the most electable path. It’s also about wanting to, when I’m successful, expose a path for others to follow. So we saw in a very crowded Democratic primary with some very strong candidates, that there wasn’t room for all of the strong candidates, for all of the new, strong voices.

I think a lot of them would have fared better taking this approach. I might not be running if some of them had opted for this approach. But as important, there are all of the folks who are sitting on the sidelines, out of politics, who have an interest in it, but aren’t willing to throw their hat in the ring for elected office because they don’t feel like there’s a path for them that doesn’t lead them through one of the set of hurdles that each of their parties has set up. And I want to show that you know you don’t have to necessarily go through those hurdles.

Citified: How long have you been registered as an Independent, and why do you identify as one?

Stober: Since 2013, I’ve been registered as an Independent. I was a lifelong Democrat before that. … I’ve spent almost my entire career in public service, and the more time I spent at the local level … it was just really clear to me that the solutions to local government challenges aren’t partisan. In fact, many other cities just have non-partisan elections because these kind of policy decisions are largely not driven by ideology.

And we don’t right now have a Council that’s particularly ideological or that has ideological divisions. … I identify at the local level for sure as an Independent. On some of the state and local issues, I’m much more of a Democrat.

Citified: Are there positions that local Democrats take that you don’t?

Stober: No. I actually don’t think I’m particularly different from those positions. I’ll tell you what my positions are. My platform is basically around fully supporting our public schools, making sure that we are collecting unpaid taxes and having an honest conversation about what that means. So that means first having an honest accounting of what’s actually collectible, and then honestly and effectively taking off the table those debts that are owed to us by our citizens with little or no income. It does our city no good to seize their homes or lien their homes. We can take those things off the table and there’s still a lot of money on the table that we shouldn’t feel bad about going after, and we can go after effectively.

… Making sure that we are fairly and accurately assessing property taxes, and I’ll be talking about a lot more about that over the course of the campaign, and what that can mean. Making sure that we are taking care of our infrastructure in our neighborhoods, and so that means our streets and our libraries and our parks and recreation facilities, and we’re making smart investments throughout the city in those resources. That we have a plan to eliminate traffic fatalities. It’s every five hours that a pedestrian gets hit by a car on average in Philadelphia. That’s crazy and it doesn’t have to be that way, and we need a serious plan that brings together the police and the streets department and the health department to address that. And then lastly, making sure that we have and maintain our ethical and effective government.

Citified: You’d have a good chance of being appointed to a top transportation position in the next mayor’s administration. Why do you think you’d make more of a difference on Council than in the mayor’s office?

Stober: The city is successful when it has a strong and effective mayor, and when it has a strong and effective City Council. I had the privilege of spending the last six-and-a-half years helping a mayor and working in the executive branch and helping that branch of government work well, and I really wanted to bring that set of skills and experiences to Council to help make it the most effective body it can be. Because for our citizens, when the mayor’s doing a great job and Council is doing a great job, we have that much better of a shot at having a great city. And one of the things that I think will make the next Council more effective is having someone who can really partner with the mayor. So other than Curtis Jones, I don’t believe that there’s anyone on City Council who’s actually worked on the executive branch. And not having that experience I think can make it a challenge for Council to partner with an administration, and I have a set of experiences and skills that can make me an effective partner for the next mayor. I also know how it works on the inside, and so I can call things out when they’re not working the way that I know they can work.

Citified: You’re an expert on transportation. But if elected to Council, you’ll have to weigh in on a whole host of issues. What else do you have an expertise in?

Stober: I think my overarching area of expertise is in making government work and getting big programs done in complicated bureaucracies that happen to be in the area of transportation. The Indego bike share program is probably he most public-facing one of those. The tens of millions of dollars of TIGER grants we’ve secured to bring transit security to the Northeast and Southwest Philadelphia, to expand biking and walking trails all across the city. One of the real sort of insider baseball accomplishments I’m most proud of is reestablish the city’s energy office. We now have four energy professionals who are working and many times over saving their salaries and money for the city, because we’re effectively managing what’s close to $100 million in spend just in city buildings, reducing that spend and managing the procurement of that well. So all of those dollars that we’re saving are then available for education and public safety and infrastructure and to reduce the pressure on taxes.

And then I’m also someone with a broader background in public policy. I have a master’s degree in public policy, and I am a policy geek. I’m a child and nephew of public educators. Education is something that’s near and dear to my heart, and I’ve proven over time, I think, to be a pretty quick study on the issues. And one of the things that’s exciting to me about this is really being able to engage with a broader set of policy issues and a broader set of constituents and advocacy groups in the city.

Citified: Do you think you’ll have a hard time fundraising as an Independent?

Stober: Well, we’re going to find out, aren’t we? So here’s my theory, and we’ll find out if it’s true — that there’s a lot of pent-up demand both among voters and donors for a candidate like myself. I think there are both a lot of donors and voters who cast ballots, made contributions to candidates with track records not terribly different from mine. So ranging from Isaiah Thomas to Paul Steinke and Tom Wyatt to Helen Gym, and then over time looking back to candidates like Andy Toy and others and not seeing those kind of voices, that kind of change happen on Council.

I think that I’m baking on people being excited about having the chance to vote for someone in the general election, and having the opportunity to contribute to someone’s campaign who has a real serious shot.

There have been Independent candidates before, but I don’t think anyone’s run a serious campaign. I’m going to run a very serious campaign, and we’ll see what the voters think.

Citified: This is a unique year because you’ll be required to collect fewer signatures for nominating petitions than many Independent candidates have had to in the past. (That’s because the number of signatures collected must be “at least equal to 2 percent of the largest entire vote cast for any officer elected at the last preceding election,” which is the special election held to replace former Councilman Bill Green. There were only 66,204 votes cast then for the winner of that race, Ed Neilson.) Given that advantage, why don’t you think more Independents are running for Council?

Stober: I think it’s because there’s not a history of success. A surprising number of people don’t even realize that this is an option everyone takes for granted. What is it — 100,000 [registered] Republicans [in Philly]? — and I don’t know how many of them actually turn out to the polls. Maybe 20,00o of them. Yet they pick our two choices for those two Council seats that are reserved for the non-majority party. I think as people look at it, and once I prove there’s a path there, I think we’re going to see a lot more Independents getting in the race.

Citified: What would you say to someone who says that perhaps you’re running for Council as an Independent to build up name recognition for another campaign, and that this is a clever way to not alienate Democrats while doing that?

Stober: I would say they’re more clever than I am. … I am not that calculating. I am running because I want this job very much, and I plan to get it. And I plan to do a great job at it, and then I’ll make a decision about if I want to keep it. But no, I’m not that calculating.